For Tiffany Davis and untold thousands of the displaced, the desire to return "home" to New Orleans is tempered by the reality of the life Hurricane Katrina washed away and an impatience to get on with life while that wounded city slowly heals itself.
No one can say how many Louisianians will someday return from the Katrina diaspora. But it is clear from interviews with evacuees -- particularly those who were living on the economic margins -- that many are considering putting down roots elsewhere.
Like others who lost everything to the floods and wait in distant locales for New Orleans to rise again, Davis eventually will have to decide whether to go home -- in her case to a city with plenty of bad memories.
Davis grew up surrounded by violence in a neighborhood on the underside of the Big Easy, one not found on any tourist map.
"Too much chaos" is how Davis, 20, describes her city before the storm. She is one of more than a dozen family members who are now living in a relative's townhouse in Laurel. "Killings, crimes, everything you can imagine," she said, she said of the city she fled.
She lost six friends to homicides, she said; one was shot 17 times. She quit high school but later got a general equivalency diploma and job as a file clerk. She stopped working last year after becoming pregnant. Her child, Jordan, 3 months old, was being cared for by a family friend when the hurricane struck. Davis has called relatives, shelters and hotlines but cannot find them.
"If I have to start here and knock on every door from here to New Orleans, I will find my son," she said, standing outside the townhouse Saturday night.
Beyond that, though, her future is unclear. But her mother, one of at least 1,300 evacuees who have landed in the Washington region, said it is an easy decision.
"I ain't going back," said Rose Davis, 36, who also is staying at the Laurel townhouse. "Okay," replied Tiffany Davis, who has been away from Louisiana only once before, to visit Atlanta when she was 12. "Once I find my son, I don't have to go back, either."
That sentiment has been echoed by many of the poor who fled the floodwaters, said Kelly Warner, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army in Texas.
Overall, it is estimated that a million Gulf Coast residents were displaced by the storm, nearly half of them from New Orleans, where virtually all of the 450,000 inhabitants have been evacuated.
Warner said she has talked with scores of evacuees being sheltered at the Astrodome, and many of them have told her that they are determined to return to Louisiana someday. But many others are not. She said they view the evacuation as a door to fresh start, as "a second chance."
"A lot of them didn't see much opportunity in New Orleans," Warner said, "and now they see a chance to make a new life here or somewhere else."
She added: "Then there are a lot of people who are saying, 'I think I might want to go back, but I can't wait a year. I need to find a job and make a life.' They want to make a life wherever they are. . . . They may be adamant about going back, but they're also adamant that they need to pull their lives back together."
Relief workers in Houston said that those most determined to return are reluctant to accept offers of shelter in distant states and cities. But many who are less eager to reestablish their roots are open to accepting temporary shelter in places much farther away, they said.
The Laurel townhouse belongs to Rose Davis's sister Chonya Davis-Johnson, 31, and her husband. Davis-Johnson left New Orleans nearly a decade ago, got a graduate degree and now works as a policy analyst for the D.C. Board of Education.
For years, she'd been telling family members to look for work outside New Orleans. But they'd lived in poverty so long they considered it normal.
"I think something this dramatic had to happen for them to realize it's not," Davis-Johnson said.
If there is any good thing in the fact that it will take months, if not years, to restore New Orleans, Davis-Johnson said it is that her family has a better chance to establish roots here, and perhaps stay permanently.
Rose Davis needs no persuading.
"I want to stay here to better my life," she said.
In New Orleans, after working in a milk plant, restaurants and a Bourbon Street hotel, she had been out of work for three months when Katrina hit. She has suffered from depression since childhood, she said, and gets $579 a month in disability payments. She said she hopes to raise her 4-year-old daughter and infant son in Maryland.
"I've had a lot of bad times," she said. "I want to leave them behind."
At the D.C. Armory, where more than 150 Louisianians are being housed, Desmond Daniels, 35, sat on the steps outside, sipping beer from a cup and chatting with two local women who had come to the shelter to help. Daniels, who drove a trash truck in New Orleans, said he has enjoyed being fussed over by volunteers. In fact, he said, people have been so nice to him, so attentive to his needs, that he may stay here for good.
"We are like superstars," he said. "I love this place."
Another evacuee, Charles Stewart, 58, who described himself as a retiree, said he felt the same way. "Hey, man," he said to another flood victim outside the armory. "I was on CNN. People from Florida say they saw me on TV. I am having a glorious time."
Now that the initial shock of Katrina has begun to wear off, the delight that Daniels, Stewart and other evacuees expressed about their new surroundings has a familiar ring to W. Courtland Robinson, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University. "Putting lives back together like this is a very complicated undertaking," Robinson said.
"The first phase is really . . . kind of numbness," he said. Then comes anger and resentment. And often after that, there is a kind of honeymoon period.
"Things are new," he said. "People are giving you things. You're the focus of some media attention, let's say. People welcome you into their neighborhood. . . . There's a sense of real optimism."
Then, "sadly, for a great many, the next phase is one of growing frustration that things aren't working out as well. . . . The cold light of reality begins to set in, and people really do experience sometimes real clinical depression. Others just find it hard to settle into a new place. There's a kind of mourning for the lost life that they had."
Cleo Breland, 47, and Nathaniel Williams, 52, both evacuees, were walking from the armory to Union Station, discussing their prospects.
"They say we can go back to New Orleans in three months," said Breland, who worked in a New Orleans salon, shampooing hair. "Man, New Orleans is not going to be ready in three months. It's going to take way more time than that."
So he was scoping out Washington the other day, strolling along Massachusetts Avenue, wondering what the city has to offer, before he decides whether to stay. Williams, on the other hand, said he plans on going home as soon as possible.
"They got good jobs picking all that debris out of the water," said Williams, a painter and handyman. He also said he is looking forward to Mardi Gras early next year. He has been involved in the parades since the early 1970s. "I cut masks. I make costumes," he said. "It's a tradition -- I make $2,500 a year."
But Breland, who is in no hurry to return to Louisiana, said: "There's not even going to be a Mardi Gras.
"I've already been offered three jobs" in Washington, he added. "For now, I'm just trying to get the lay of the land."
On a bus carrying evacuees from Houston to Maryland last week, Spencer Norwood, 26, who was a line cook in New Orleans, was also thinking about the future. "I want to go back," he said, adding that his boss hopes to reopen his restaurant within six months.
But, he added: "Something is telling me, 'Don't go back.' I don't think it will be the same."
Norwood and his family will be living temporarily with parishioners of St. Raphael's Catholic Church in Rockville. And Norwood said he plans to look for a job here. "If there's a better opportunity in Maryland," he said, "I'll stay in Maryland."
With him on the bus were his sister Keyoka Norwood, 29, and her boyfriend, Ferron Scott, 32, who was a limousine driver in New Orleans. Scott liked his job because he sometimes chauffeured celebrities, including musician Dave Matthews. But the house that he and his girlfriend rented in New Orleans is underwater now. "I don't have nothing," he said.
They left with just a few items of clothing, enough for a couple of days away, not thinking they would be gone for good. "We thought we'd go back," Scott said. Now he's ready to settle elsewhere. "I think it's time for a change," he said.
Then there was Bruce Norwood, 48, Spencer and Keyoka's uncle, with a different idea.
He was on the bus to Maryland, too, but he won't be putting down roots here.
Before he suffered a stroke two months ago, he was a painter, construction worker and "jack-of-all-trades," he said. He plans to go home to Louisiana as soon as possible because he loves New Orleans and wants to help rebuild it.
"It's too beautiful a city to let it go quietly into the night."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Lonnae Parker O'Neal, Michael E. Ruane and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.